The Navy has a great opportunity coming up to tell its story, but it looks like we are about to miss an opportunity that only comes along once in a century. Before we get to the meat of it – let’s review some fundamentals.

There are few professions where an understanding of history is more important than the military. Though we debate its application and education here, I don’t think many argue this fundamental fact.

We also live in a Representative Republic where the military is funded based on the support and approval of its nation’s democratically elected Representatives. It is hoped that informed and educated voters result in informed and educated Representatives who will then make the best decisions on where the nation’s funds are spent.

Since the end of WWII, we have seen a steady retreat from large segments of this nation, so that even traditional maritime cities such at New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and regions such as New England and the entire San Francisco Bay area are now devoid of any significant Navy presence. In all the areas above – representing a significant part of our nation – besides small reserve units, the Naval War College, and a few submarines, they are effectively a Navy free zone….and those are in areas with a great Navy tradition in living memory. Add in to this great swaths of this nation that almost never see a Navy uniform …. and you have a challenge. The challenge of telling the Navy’s story.

Most people outside the Navy family do not fully grasp the role our Navy has in their nation’s history, and as a result cannot understand its need for the future. It isn’ t taught in schools, and if it isn’t in your family or your neighborhood – all you see is what Hollywood might feed you while channel surfing. We have to take advantage of every opportunity to tell our story – no one else is.

After Times Square in NYC and the Las Vegas Strip – Washington DC, specifically The Mall, is the most popular destination in the US. Let that soak in, we’ll come back to it.

One of the best ways to tell a story is to let people see it. Museums have stood the test of time, they serve as the foundation stone to telling your story. You have to do it right, or its impact will be lost to those who need it most. The Navy needs a great museum, not a good one, a great one. We don’t have that now.

The most important thing for a museum is location. You can always get more money later … but you can only pick a spot once. If you were going to pick a spot in Washington DC for a museum you would want two things – great visual exposure to attract visitors who may have not thought about going – the “Oooohhhh Daddy, look at that!” strategy; anyone in marketing can tell you the importance of that. The second is access. In DC if you can walk to it, you can get to it. That is where we are making our first mistake.

The Navy is recommending that the proposal for a waterfront Navy museum blocks from the National Mall be sidelined in favor of a location in the northwest corner of the Navy Yard — one that would be outside the complex’s secure perimeter, allowing easier public access.

The current National Museum of the U.S. Navy occupies 98,000 square feet in two buildings within the Navy Yard’s perimeter and has a relatively low number of visitors annually. A new museum would take up more than 200,000 square feet at either location.

There is no better place in DC to tell your story than within easy walking distance from The Mall. Waterfront & The Mall – and you have a winner.

You would be hard pressed to pick a less desirable place for a museum than the neighborhood around the Navy Yard in DC. It is isolated, unattractive, out of the main tourist areas. It is a loser.

What if the Navy had a chance to grab a spot right where 395 enters DC …. thousands to hundreds of thousands of eyeballs every day seeing the museum … a spot that is also a short walk from The Mall? Again, sounds like a winner, right?

Well, it seems not to the minds of those making decisions, decisions I would offer are myopic in the extreme. It also sounds like there are egos involved – egos that are leaning on a bit too much on one of the weaknesses of our profession; a desire for control and power.

Via our friends at NavyTimes,

A Naval Facilities Command brief being circulated among Navy leadership demonstrated a level of wariness on the Navy’s part to enter into an agreement with the National Maritime Heritage Foundation out of a concern for losing a degree of operational control of the facilities. The foundation submitted its proposal in September 2009.

The NAVFAC report, dated Dec. 1 and obtained by Navy Times, indicates the Navy would seek to “maximize Navy control over development and operational management of the museum.” The report lists the lack of operational control and ownership of the building as “risk factors” involved in accepting the NMHF proposal.

Navy history is bigger than any of the personalities involved. Who are they worried about influencing the museum? The Students for a Democratic Society? Ummmm, no.

A source with intimate knowledge of the proposal said the Navy was offered full operational control over the waterfront building. The source said the report was based on an initial proposal only and that the foundation had subsequently offered a 51 percent ownership stake in the building, with first right of refusal over any use of the property, adding that the NAVFAC report made “all the worst assumptions” about the NMHF proposal.

The foundation’s proposal was publicly supported by nine retired admirals, two former Navy secretaries — Gordon England and John Dalton — and prominent Washington politicians, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and former Mayor Adrian Fenty.

In the business world, 51% IS control. Is cost an issue?

The report concluded that any museum would be an expensive endeavor; cost estimates for the NMHF proposal over 30 years ranged from $384 million to $504 million. The upfront cost to the Navy would be about $78 million.

The Marine Corps paid about $30 million upfront for its museum in Quantico, Va., and the service continues to have tight control over the exhibits and message they convey, a model sources say the Navy wants to follow.

The Navy Yard site, located in a building known as “The Yards” would cost about $428 million over 30 years.

No, cost isn’t a factor between the two. Estimates are a rounding error for the DTS program. The Army and USMC have solid track records for private-public partnerships … and in any event, pure government programs have an exceptionally poor track record for cost and timelines. You can almost smell it …..

The NAVFAC report is unclear on the funding for the Navy Yard location, but the 2015 timeline is based on “sole source approval.” A request for comment from NHHC on what the potential funding source would be or if there was a potential private partner for the Navy Yard location was not returned by press time.

A final mistake I think is a question of who the museum is for. Many in favor of the Navy Yard site. When they get past their control issues, seem to think that the primary audience for the museum is active duty military and their families. I’m sorry, no.

This museum should focus on the American public at large – the taxpayers who support it. A self-licking ice cream cone hidden away in a nasty corner of DC visited by a few who already know the Navy story is not worth the effort.

A crown jewel of a museum, close to The Mall, seen by everyone driving down 395 – with the potential to be a marque location for the millions who visit DC – that is something worthy of our Navy.

Fund raising? Wow. We really underestimate our supporters out there. The Navy League chapters throughout this nation along with the scrum of Navy active duty, reserve, retired, family, friends, and industry …. with the right leadership – this is doable. Even in a rough economy, very doable.

We have a great location with great partners wanting to do something great for our Navy and our nation. Why are we turning away? They seem to have made steps to address “control” issues (which BTW is a serious one given what happened in Canada and other mistakes that can be made WRT history). The money issue is a rounding error. Fund raising is very doable. What am I missing?

We have a chance here, we can have something on par with the 5-Star Air & Space Museum on one end, or the National Aquarium in the basement of the Commerce building on the other. Which do you want for your Navy?

What, you didn’t know we had a National Aquarium in DC? Exactly.

Posted by CDRSalamander in History, Navy

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  • wilber

    Or it would be right next to the ballpark and a newly building up area. What would the sit near the mall do? Fill the tidal basin with ships? That is what draws people to the air and space museum, and even makes people drive all the way up to dulles to see more. The real thing.

  • My concern is that under the present government the Europeanization of America will proceed to the point where we may end up with a museum and no Navy. Just as Left wing groups ensconced themselves in San Francisco’s Presidio in a display of triumphalism reminiscent of the transformation of Hagia Sofia into a mosque or the Dahlem Ethnographic Musuem is based on the Nazi’s intent to collect mementos of peoples they eliminated, there are people who want to see the military remembered as a quaint harmless historical relic.

    Museums and ceremonial units may be tolerated by the intolerant but only if they are seen as non-threatening. That means the less functional they are the more they may be accepted. Effective communications are seen as very threatening. In NYC on the West Side of Manhattan the Intrepid Air-Sea & Space Museum is opposed by the local Community Board, because it does not meet their agenda.

    The Navy is shrinking to be less than a Coast Guard while the world explodes. Right now the South coast of the Mediterranean is on fire from Morocco to Egypt and Americans are trapped in Libya. We knew, or should have known, this was coming for weeks. There is exactly one tin can available in the Med. The nearest CVBG’s are off to deal with Somalia. There is nothing, neither a Battle Group nor a Marine afloat force closer than Virginia. The State Department has been tasking Laurel and Hardy to rent a ferry. Our EU Nato allies stare South at the possibility of millions of Islamist refugees heading their way with blind panic.

  • Why is it that today’s leadership, raised under the concept of “command by negation” is really all about control and “mother, may I”.

    With all the early 70s nuclear trained officers leading us now, is this Rickover’s unintended lasting contribution? A fear of making a mistake that reinforces the idea that everything must be controlled?

    Who do we call? Who do we visit? Who do we talk to? This issue is such a no-brainer I am amazed that NAVFAC had anyone willing to even write that brief, much less finalize it to a point that it could circulate.

  • Mike M.

    Good Grief! But this is a symptom of a bigger problem.

    The Navy used to take pride in itself – and communicated that pride to the general public. Port visits, speeches…even the seemingly trivial matters of visiting grade schools.

    Today, the Navy slinks in the shadows. Not much pride left, and what embers remain are being buried.

    It’s tragic – because we’re going to need seapower in the next decades. Navies that act ashamed of themselves don’t have the confidence or competence to win wars.

  • Chaps

    Navy leadership is ambivalent (at best) about Navy history because most of it has too few women, too few minorities, was not “gay-friendly,” and was not “green” enough. Those issues are the biggies for Navy senior leadership…. who seem basically ashamed of our heritage and unwilling to celebrate our history.

  • Combat Wombat

    Wouldn’t this be the perfect place for the USS Olympia, in fully restored (and maintained) (Old) Glory?

  • leesea

    This is MY hometown. I was raised right across the Anacostia river. Since I was a kid I have been going up and down M Street.
    I loved going to the Navy Museum while I worked on the Yard from 1985 until 2002. I would like to see the current museum better attended since it has a certain aura or feel about it now in the old Naval Gun Factory buildings. But…

    Given that I would like to see MORE in SE Washington not on the over-crowed Mall. But! who is going to pop the bucks to move it?

    The utter lack of monetary support from the USN for historic naval vessel like USS Olympia and SS United States is indeed a symptom of a bigger problem

  • Chuck Hill

    To Cdr Salamander–Amen brother.

    Would also note that it is wrong to paint the entire Bay area as anti-military. The Hornet is in Alameda and there is a group in Mare Island trying to get the Olympia, although I would certainly rather see her at a National Naval Museum on the Waterfront in DC.

    If the Navy doesn’t want the site maybe the Coast Guard ought to put their National Museum there.

  • Chuck Hill

    Incidentally if the Naval institute is is going to change it’s mission statement,

    why isn’t it being discussed here?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Salamander is all over the (totally unnecessary except to stifle anything but the current “party line”, in my opinion)change of USNI mission statement thing.

    If the Navy is going to have a museum, make it world class, and open and easy to get to for the public.

  • Chuck,
    Gal is talking about it on his homeblog – I am talking about it on my homeblog.

    Looks like good coverage to me.

  • Spade

    If a Navy museum was part of the bigger push to make SE/Navy Yard not suck, then it could be good. What with the ballpark, the new parks, etc. And if there was more to do here and such.

    So long as visitors didn’t have to go onto the Yard proper and still had access to a museum ship (or two).

  • Chuck Hill

    CdrS said,

    “Chuck, Gal is talking about it on his homeblog – I am talking about it on my homeblog.


    “Looks like good coverage to me.”

    But of all the places it could be discussed, here is the most appropriate. Why didn’t the board broach the topic here?

    Incidentally I also brought it to the attention of CGBlog readers.

    I just directed them to Galrahn’s site. I’ll reference your’s as well.

  • SwitchBlade

    Having been to the Navy Yard Museum, although its been a while – I concur completely with having the Navy Museum somewhere else. Anywhere on the Mall would get more visitors and present the Navy story better.

    Ships, Ships and more Ships will draw the visitors. I was thinking USS Olympia while reading the article. Other historic and class representative ships are available and would be great additions.

    What I couldn’t figure out from the article is who exactly is making the derision and preferring the Navy Yard. NAVFAC isn’t a person, nor is the person in charge of NAVFAC the senior person making the decision. So, what are we supposed to do about the situation?

  • SwitchBlade

    Incidentally, all of the links above go to Norman Polmar’s letter WRT the changes. If I had a copy of the changes, the letter may make perfect sense. However, since the letter quotes phrases, apparently with the understanding that we’ve got a copy of the Mission Statement to refer to in front of us.

    It would be useful to have the original document in front of us while explaining the recommended changes and the reasons to vote against them.

  • Moose

    Agree 100% with Salamander. This needs to be a museum for the same people who flock in droves to the Air & Space Museum, not locked away at The Yards where the most foot traffic it will get is from drunk Nats fans who can’t find a cab.

    Decommission Enterprise, pull her reactors, seal the hull back up, park her within walking distance of The Mall.

  • Jay

    Can’t get ships of real size to DC (draft and air draft). Even if you could, you are competing with ships/subs already in many ports/tourist areas – Battleship Cove, NYC, Baltimore, Norfolk, Wilmington on the East Coast alone (I would google the rest, but there are more than many are aware of) unsure of how they are doing financially.

    While the Mall would be an ideal location, I have no idea of the available space issues om it, but that could be a determining factor here. DC does plan to remake the DC waterfront area and neighboring Navy Yard more attractive, more accessible and tourist friendly.

    I am not familiar with NHHC’s current plans (I need to check their website), but they have an enormous responsibility, with a finite budget. Some business-centric decisions may heavily factor in what is desirable, and what is doable.

    Along that line, do we have to preserve the *entire* USS OLYMPIA, or perhaps would parts of her be enough? The S.S. UNITED STATES would be nice to see, but not really a Navy concern (perhaps a maritime museum would be more appropriate).

    Unfortunately, many museums are located on bases, after 9/11, it became hard to to access many of them. Those located outside our FP envelopes, easier to locate, do better financially.

  • Mike M.

    There’s one other benefit to a Mall location.

    It’ll drive the other services nuts. 🙂

  • Derrick

    Before a price tag is given to a hypothetical museum for the US Navy, I believe the requirement should be firmed up first.

    Personally, I believe the most important requirement for any US Navy museum for the public should be:
    To educate taxpayers on the history of how the US Navy has protected America’s interests in the world. It should show the history of how the US Navy protects America’s ability to project military power overseas, via protecting sea lanes used for resupplying forward bases, etc…To me it is imperative this knowledge is passed down to future generations.

    Things like technical details, such as how Aegis or Aircraft Carrier catapults work would probably bore most civilians into not attending.

    But if there was a nice pictoral exhibit or model ship exhibit showing how the US navy protected convoys of supplies from the US to Asia and Europe during World War 2, or how the US Navy deterred Saddam Hussein from attacking the shipping of US forces to Saudi Arabia in 1990-1991, then I think some people would pay attention.

    Yeah.. there should be a small part reserved to honour veterans so that American kids will remember and respect their sacrifice, as well as respect the military, but it shouldn’t be the focus. The benefit the US navy gives the taxpayer should be the focus.

    I’d rather the money be spent on little team games where little kids could each take command of a bunch of Aegis cruisers, a Nimitz carrier, some F-14 jets and play some sort of big simulated video game where they have to protect the shipment of supplies to Saudi Arabia in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. Something like a big Command and Conquer game for students to play on school visits…History is best taught through games.

    Just my 2 cents worth…feel free to reject.

  • Big D

    It’s a tad more mission-specific, but the National Museum of the Pacific War (and attached Bush Gallery) does a decent job of presenting the Navy to the public. Something like that, expanded to cover the Navy’s entire history, with a few historic museum ships at hand, and maybe an inaugural visit from a certain Frigate, might attract some interest from the public…

  • Bucherm

    I’ll be the dirty SOB that says it:

    Empty out the Museum of the American Indian and use that spot. It has to be the most boring, poorly conceived(waste of Atrium) uninteresting, shelf-flagellating museum within 10 miles of the Mall.

  • leesea

    For those who have not been to DC and Mall recently, there is NO more room along the Mall. Parking is non-existant on good days. The nearest water is the Tidal Basin and Potomac Channel both are many blocks away and only deep enough for small boats. IF you want to bury another “attraction” along the Mall so be it but don’t put a new big naval museum there please!

    The empty govt owned property exists south of M St SE and that property is adjacent to the Anacostia River. It is between WNY and Nationals Park. Outdoor exhibits at Leutze Park should be moved as well as two museum bldgs. In addition, there is already Metro rail & bus service right on M St.

    SE Washignton has a lot of history in it, perhaps some are blind to that? There are a lot of folks who just come and go and never get out into the neighborhoods like up 8th St.